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  • Mourning Rights:Beowulf, the Iliad, and the War in Iraq
  • Robin Norris (bio)

The Iliad speaks to the way we think about war, because the one impulse that has proved as enduring as human beings' urge to make wars is their need to make sense of them. The first step in making sense of any such loss is to mourn the dead. Nothing is more crucial to approaching Homer and the arts that come from war than thinking back on loss. Bereavement and mourning are things we come to know firsthand in life, sooner or later. Perhaps we learn them most efficiently through war. The Iliad has death and mourning in abundance, and the poetry it offers is the only enduring consolation. Homer finds significance in his war, as later poets would in theirs, by moving from the present moment to other points in time, juxtaposing the here and now with the past and future.

—James Tatum, The Mourner's Song (xi)

Much is at stake in the afterlife of literature. Through its episodic focus on individual experience, heroic poetry gives us a means to process the magnitude of the loss of human life entailed in war. In an attempt to explain the world's failure to respond to contemporary genocide, Paul Slovic has recently demonstrated that the average person feels the greatest affect—and is therefore most likely to act—in response to the experience of one individual in crisis. Not only do we cease to feel when presented with the [End Page 276] suffering of thousands; our affective response to just two individuals is markedly lower than the response to one. We honor the individual, but we are incapable of maintaining the same respect for the plurality. Likewise, we may not mourn for the countless Greek soldiers buried in a mass grave on the shore near Troy, but we grieve with Achilles for Patroclus, and with Priam for Hector; we may not mourn for the extinction of the Geatish nation, but we grieve with the meowle, the "woman" who bemoans her fate at Beowulf's pyre.

Although Homo sapiens may not be the only species to experience or express bereavement, and we are certainly not the only species whose loss deserves to be mourned, we seem to be the only ones writing poems of remembrance for one another. Thus, while I have not met Patroclus or the Geatish meowle, the poetry of Homer and the Beowulf-poet has invited me to remember them, and to participate in the shared community of mourners at epic's end. Transmitting sorrow through the technology of poetry is an experience unique to human beings, to being human, and reading such texts subjects us to a contagious mourning that allows us to weep for individuals we've never met, and who may have never even existed. If the study of the humanities can provoke an affective response to the plight of individuals long dead, even fictional ones, then perhaps the humanities will someday teach us to respond more fully to the real suffering of our contemporaries, the victims of force, of war, or genocide.

Mourning Past and Future

In The Iliad or the Poem of Force, Simone Weil defines 'force' as "that which makes a thing of whoever submits to it" (45). "Exercised to the extreme," she explains, "it makes the human being a thing quite literally, that is, a dead body" (45). Mourning for death, the conversion of human into thing, takes place through remembrance of the past, by recalling the time when the thing was still a human. In his famous essay "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud explains the importance of memory to the work of mourning when he writes, "Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hypercathected" in order to attenuate emotional attachment to the dearly departed (244). Thus, mourning is a natural process that requires a temporary focus on the past. A diagnosis of melancholy may apply to those whose attachment to [End Page 277] the past has become permanent, and therefore pathological, as Julia Kristeva explains:

Riveted to the past, regressing to the paradise or inferno of...


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